Many people have a song or album that they once shared with a significant other, friend or someone in between. Whether it was a Spotify link, a burned CD or a voice memo, that song soon became what they would listen to together as they drove around late at night trying to waste time before dropping the other off. Then at home, it was the song they played again by themselves, wishing they were still on that drive rather than alone. For some, it was the song that someone played for them on the guitar, or maybe it was the Flo Rida song that played from a dusty speaker as they had their awkward first kiss on a basement couch.
The concept of having a song with someone has been around for as long as we’ve been able to share music with one another. This goes back 40,000 years, to the first known signs of instruments on Earth. Colin Barras, a scientist with degrees in geology and paleobiology, writes, “Research suggests [music] may have allowed our distant ancestors to communicate before the invention of language, been linked to the establishment of monogamy and helped provide the social glue needed for the emergence of the first large early and pre-human societies.”
Taylor Swift emphasized the popularity of sharing music in her 2006 jam, “Our Song.” People used to burn mixtapes onto a CD and give them to their crush to play on their car stereo. A friend even told me that he believes his love language is sharing music. Lucky for him, today we have the power to listen to or share almost any song whenever we might desire to.
With that being said, the equivalent of burning a CD has become sending the link to a song over text or creating an entire playlist for someone. We are even able to edit these playlists together and fill them with songs that remind us of each other or that we think the other person will like (thank you, Spotify).
Recently, I was in a relationship where we made the executive decision to take on the responsibility of a collaborative playlist. The playlist we created together was magical — a great collection to shuffle when I wanted to be reminded of my partner.
But then we broke up for a few weeks. During this period, the two of us consistently listened to this playlist while we grieved the loss of our connection. Just by pressing shuffle, I would be transported to the beach, lying on an old blanket and seeing who could spot the big dipper first. Listening, I felt heavy and empty at the same time, reminded of memories I would never get back.
Then we got back together, but the playlist remained an issue. Neither of us could listen to it, or many of the songs we used to love, because we associated them with our breakup more than the wonderful time we spent together. And there were some damn good songs on there.
I began to wonder: why is it that we are so inclined to communicate and connect through music?
It turns out that music has a powerful effect on our emotions and memories. An effect that allows us to transport back to that specific time with that specific person and possibly feel close to them once again.
It can evoke strong reactions such as chills and the release of dopamine in our brains, leading us to use it in times of stress, happiness, sadness or boredom. In a Psychology Today article, Shahram Heshmat, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, discussed the link between music, emotion and memories.
“Memories are one of the important ways in which musical events evoke emotions,” Heshmat writes. “As the late physician Oliver Sacks has noted, musical emotions and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared. Part of the reason for the durable power of music appears to be that listening to music engages many parts of the brain, triggering connections and creating associations.”
Music enriches our relationships and makes the memories of those around us all the more vivid.
In my life, there have been many songs associated with loved ones. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and The Heart reminds me of my two best friends from home and the time we cried on a group FaceTime about leaving for college. The band Mt. Joy reminds me of my freshman year roommate and the time we ventured to Detroit for their intimate concert. “Online” by Brad Paisley reminds me of my most recent boyfriend because on one of our first dates, he said the song, which describes someone who looks cooler and taller on their dating profile, was about him. Anything by Bruce Springsteen reminds me of my parents dancing in the kitchen together.
There are also songs I can no longer listen to because the memories that are conjured up from them are now painful or sad. At points, I wonder if sharing music that I love is a bad idea because of its risks. But I also know that the risk of losing my love for the song comes with the reward of allowing for a deeper connection with someone else.
To investigate the process of moving on from a significant other and its link to our emotional connection with songs, I decided to turn to my Instagram followers to see if they had any similar experiences. I created a list of around 50 people — some of whom I know well and some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in a few years — and designed a poll for them to answer. The first question I asked was “Have you ever made a collaborative playlist with a significant other?” Just over half of my followers shared that they had, while the other half had not. I was not surprised at how many couples had crafted a playlist of their own, but I imagined that those who had not still had songs they could no longer bring themselves to hear.
So, my next question was: “Have you ever had a song ruined because it reminded you of someone who you liked a lot but is no longer a part of your life?”
There was nearly a universal response to this: 36 of my followers replied yes and only three replied no. I felt immense validation for what I’ve experienced with music on my own.
The final thing I wanted to know: what specific songs had been ruined? Some of my favorite responses were “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel and “Whistle” by Flo Rida. Another friend of mine shared that they can no longer listen to “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello (which honestly might be for the best) because, in high school, an awkward moment was shared at a party with their partner while this blasted from another room. I became quite invested in hearing people’s stories, each connecting familiar and not-so-familiar music to important memories in their lives.
When I started brainstorming for this article, my initial goal was to warn people against introducing their favorite song into a relationship. In particular, I thought about warning people against the alluring art of the collaborative playlist.
However, as I went along collecting these responses, I realized the goal of my article had changed. Lily, a person from my high school, replied to my third question by saying “Season Girl by Golden Boy (I think u would like this song anyway)”. And as Lily guessed, I loved the song within my first 30 seconds of hearing it. Quickly after listening, I realized that the point of this article should not be to warn people against falling in love with a song that is associated with a person.
Music heals and brings us closer to the ones we love, making our memories of them stronger and more vivid. In fact, I encourage people to connect over music despite the risks. But, I believe there is a way for the reward to outweigh this risk: If you end up hating the music because the associated memories become painful, share that music with someone else who may enjoy it as you used to. I think the best way to mourn music that we can’t bring ourselves to hear is to pass it on to others.
To honor this idea, I made a playlist consisting of the songs that people shared with me that have been ruined for them. Let the songs bring someone else closer with their loved one and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. In other words, explore someone else’s song graveyard so you can revamp your own library.
Statement columnist Nicole Winthrop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org